Safety as Its Own Incentive

Companies wanting to kickstart safety programs often try adding incentives to motivate workers to adopt safer work practices. Whether this approach is successful or not depends on how it is done.

For years, companies have been implementing safety incentive or recognition programs to motivate employees to act and think safely in the workplace. Proponents of safety incentives say they are an important element in any safety and health program. Opponents, though, claim incentive programs can contribute to non-reporting of injuries.

Companies slowly are recognizing that instead of concentrating their efforts on lagging indicators such as reporting and reducing workplace injuries, they instead should be proactive in helping employees embrace positive attitudes about safety, claims Victor Anapolle, program consultant for the Bill Sims Co., a Columbia, S.C.-based incentives company.

“Most people now believe that trailing indicators are not effective as they can lead to non-reporting,” Anapolle says. “Now our clients are looking for programs that get their workers more involved in activities that help them adopt better safety practices.”

Safety jackpots, safety bingos and drawings are among the types of safety recognition programs companies employ to add interest to the safety program. Experts agree there is little difference among the incentive packages available; what differs is the employer’s commitment and philosophy toward safety. While some employers utilize incentive programs from outside entities, others have come up with creative ways to enact in-house programs.

Don Mario: Symbol of Success

An example of this is Landscape Development Inc., a Valencia, Calif.-based landscaping contracting company that has put the topic of safety in the forefront of its employees' minds through a fictional character called “Don Mario.”

According to Ricardo “Nixon” Ruiz, Landscape Development’s safety coordinator, Don Mario was created by CEO Gary Horton in August 2005 and is the star of a book he wrote and distributed to workers and new hires to get them motivated about safety.

Like many of Landscape Development’s employees, Don Mario, a Latino immigrant, began his life in the United States as an orange picker. Don Mario eventually became the owner of a successful landscaping company. The book attributes Don Mario’s rise to owner to three fundamental principles: absolute safety, brutal honesty and making clients “raving fans.”

“The company’s owner [Horton] wanted to find a way to motivate his employees to not only think about safety but to also let them know that with good work practices, they can also get promoted to higher positions,” Ruiz explains.

As a complement to the book, the company developed a unique reward system by distributing “Don Mario” coins to workers who noticeably put the company’s three pillars into practice. The coin system has been successful: Ruiz notes that there has been an evident reduction in worker injuries.

“When one of our superintendents sees our field employees perform an outstanding service or points out something unsafe in the job they are doing, they are presented with a Don Mario coin, which is redeemable for $25,” Ruiz says.

The coins have become so popular that some of the employees have preferred to keep the coins instead of redeeming them for the money, according to Ruiz. In addition to receiving coins, workers are recognized in a bimonthly company newsletter distributed to all 1,100 employees. Whenever employees are rewarded with a coin, they also fill out a form that automatically becomes part of their permanent file, which benefits them when they are in line for a promotion.

“Our boss is really focused on the program,” Ruiz says. “As safety is our No. 1 priority, we encourage our guys to be safe and the Don Mario coins are a successful tool in helping the company continue with that principle.”

Employee recognition is one way to promote a program on a continuous basis, which is essential for building safety awareness, according to Mike Kleier, president of I.R. Promotions in Louisville, Ky. He says incentive programs that focus on the positive and keep things exciting are more effective, since employees actually look forward to them, rather then seeing them as just another task. In addition, employees are more receptive to programs that reward them for good behavior as opposed to those that focus on accident reduction.

Repeat, Reuse, Recycle

Kleier also suggests companies adopting a safety incentive program take notes from the advertising and marketing industries. “In marketing, one of the essential things is frequency,” he asserts. “McDonald’s, for example, advertises daily because they know you will forget about them unless they continuously remind you that they are there.”

“When selling anything, if you don’t repeat it over and over again, your employees won’t buy into the program,” he adds.

Buck Peavey, president of Lexana, Kan.-based Peavey Performance Systems, which runs a safety jackpot program, agrees with Kleier.
“You have to promote with intensity,” says Peavey. “You have to be creative and be different and a little crazy. That’s what gets people talking.”

Kleier, though, warns it is important not to let employees get too hung up on the incentive. This is a point of contention for incentive program opponents, as they claim it makes workers focus on the prize and disregard the real issues. Kleier acknowledges this could happen and says it is up to the company to be able to “balance the safety value with the incentive.”

In order to avoid this “dangling the carrot” approach, as Peavey likes to call it, he suggests employers include daily and weekly talks that complement the incentive program. This approach is particularly helpful if it is structured in such a way that encourages interaction and teamwork among employees. A fun theme isn’t necessary to have a monthly meeting, he says; it’s just important to keep such meetings going on a consistent basis to create discussion and interaction about safety between employees.

Employee Involvement

Employee involvement is essential at Evraz Oregon Steel Mills, according to Safety, Health and Security Manager Gary Wood. Although the company gives out awards when a department makes a safety milestone – such as working a year and half without a lost-time accident – Wood regards the true incentive program as the one in which employees take on an active role in making the company safer for everyone who works there.

Oregon Steel Mills’ unique incentive program works like this: Employees, from a supervisory level down, identify how they can make the company safer. It could be as simple as putting up a sign or as complex as installing a hydraulic system, Wood says.

The next step is for workers with safety improvement ideas to write up proposals, which include details on how the project will get done as well as estimated project costs. They submit the proposals to their coordinators, who in turn, submit them to the operations management group. The operations management group might hand the proposal back with suggestions – Woods says only about 10 percent of proposals have been discarded – and once they sign off on the project, it is up to the worker who came up with the idea to get the project rolling. They can do this either by doing it on their own or by entering a work order. Once the project is completed and approved by management, the worker gets a monetary award as well as a write-up and photograph posted in the facility as recognition.

“What this program does is that it identifies safety [challenges] and the things that can be done,” Woods explains. “It’s not like a suggestion box on the manager’s desk, where suggestions just sit there and don’t get done.”

Management Buy-In

The program would not be successful if management was not on board, Wood says. It is critical to the success of the program for management – from supervisors to the CEO – to be committed in carrying the program forward, because they literally have to “buy into” it.

“In our particular incentive program, we were able to make everyone from management see the value the program has because we needed to spend a lot of money for it,” Wood recalls.

Complementary, Not Supplementary

Safety incentive program experts estimate employers would have to spend roughly $50 per employee per year, depending on the size and success of the program.

“I don’t think that giving each employee $50 in order to drop workers' compensation costs by 40 to 50 percent is excessive because the savings there far exceeds whatever money was spent in the program,” Anapolle states.

Every company has its own philosophy when it comes to instituting an incentive program, but according to Ray Pastorius, manager of loss prevention services at Omaha, Neb.-based Millard Refrigerated Services, no incentive program is successful if it stands alone.

“The most crucial part when having an incentive program is to do other things along with it. Hold your employees responsible and make sure training is there to begin with,” he says.

Millard’s incentive program – comprised of monthly, quarterly and annual drawings for eligible employees who haven’t had accidents and haven’t committed any safety violations – is accompanied by coaching and training sessions plus monthly safety meetings.

Pastorius is adamant that Millard employees understand the true value of safety and says he doesn’t give out prizes to people who are “average” when it comes to safety. Even for those who have won prizes before, Pastorius says he expects better-than-average safety behavior.
“I don’t give out flat-screen TVs because you did average,” Pastorius says. “You can’t be just average when it comes to safety.”

Sidebar:The Do’s and Don’ts of Safety Incentive Programs

  • Do make the the time and monetary commitment: Incentive programs are a substantial investment for employers, averaging out to $50 per employee per year. They also take time to plan and execute. But they are worth every penny if they help reduce workers’ compensation claims and other worker injury-related costs, experts say.
  • Do get management on board: If management doesn’t believe in the program or stand behind it, neither will employees. Workers have to be shown that the program is fair and properly administered and this can only be done when management takes an active role in setting up and promoting the program.
  • Do promote the program: Putting up posters, giving out caps and other merchandise are good ways to promote the program, but Buck Peavey suggests that employers take it up a notch. “Try to do things that grab [workers'] attention. Dare to be different!”
  • Do stress the positive: Employees respond better when their good behavior is reinforced. Getting recognized in the company newsletter or at award ceremonies, for example, will only motivate them to continue engaging in good safety practices.
  • Do create interaction and involvement in the program: If all employees are involved in the program, it stimulates talk and team work among employees. Experts suggest to make sure that everyone in the company is guaranteed to win at least one prize annually.
  • Don’t make the program focus on lagging indicators: When the program is just about showing a reduction in the number of workplace injuries, employees are tempted to not report injuries. If the program focuses more on changing employee behavior, it will have more of an impact.
  • Don’t think that incentives are a substitute for a program: The whole point of using incentives is to build safety awareness among company employees, so use it alongside safety meetings, training sessions, etc., to help reinforce building safety awareness.
  • Don’t use cash as an incentive: Money given out as a reward often is spent on trivial items and employees might not remember where it came from from, experts state. Building trophy value by offering a choice of merchandise that employees want – not need – works better in the long run.
  • Don’t make it complicated: Creating a program that is easy to administer and easy to understand works better, as people need to understand the benefits of good safety behavior.
  • Don’t ignore supervisors: Many experts agree that including supervisors in the drawings and in other games yields stronger results in the long run. This way they can see the program’s value and not just another task they have to help administer.
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